BC Ferries is on track for its highest ever traffic volume this year, according to company officials, and the service carried a record number of vehicles from April to June.
A low Canadian dollar is drawing tourists from the United States and prompting Canadians to stick closer to home, officials said.
The first-quarter results show vehicle traffic for the three-month period, at 2.2 million, reached its highest point in BC Ferries history, while passenger traffic hit a 20-year peak of 5.6 million.
Mark Collins, president and chief executive officer, attributed the rise in traffic, in part, to “pretty reasonable” fuel prices in the U.S. and the attractiveness of the low Canadian dollar.
“So American tourists are finding value in the exchange rate and coming across the border and vacationing in B.C.,” he said in an interview. Collins noted, too, that people are looking for stable, secure places to visit.
“It can be a difficult world out there and I think it’s encouraging people to look for attractive destinations that have a high level of perceived safety. And I think we certainly qualify on Vancouver Island as one of those.”
Passenger traffic was up 3.8 per cent over the same period last year, while vehicle traffic increased 4.4 per cent.
“The number of cars we forecast to carry this year will be the largest number of cars we’ve carried since the company was founded. And we believe passengers could well break that record, too,” Collins said.
Despite the growth, BC Ferries said it reduced the number of sailing waits or “overloads” on major routes by seven per cent in the first quarter. Collins said the company offered discounted fares in the early morning or late evening to shift traffic to less popular sailings.
But Jim Abram, a Quadra Island resident and director of the Strathcona Regional District, said BC Ferries’ strategy has done nothing to ease delays on minor routes. “Every sailing pretty much is an overload on Quadra Island-Campbell River. It’s mayhem out there right now with tourist traffic being at an all-time high.” Abram said he’s seeing and hearing repeated reports of sailing waits on a number of routes.
Jef Keighley of the B.C. Ferry Coalition said the waits faced by many customers get lost in the company’s statistics. “The mathematical numbers are probably quite right,” he said. “The specific application on specific routes will be buried and masked in those aggregate figures.”
Collins acknowledged that people still face delays, depending on where and when they’re trying to board. The BC Ferries website, for example, showed travellers were facing a three-sailing wait on the Swartz Bay-Tsawwassen route late Friday afternoon, and some trips were half an hour behind schedule. Two- and three-sailing waits have become common on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and occasionally crop up on other days.
“There are a couple of hot spots,” Collins said. “The growth of the population on the Sunshine Coast and the growth of tourism up there have really, frankly, overloaded that section of our network. Now that we’re at full summer service and we have two ships working on that route, it’s a little better. But in the run-up to summer, when we only had one ship to serve on that route — as has been the historical practice — it just got overloaded.”
B.C. Transportation Minister Claire Trevena said this week that a review of BC Ferries will look closely at the delays that people experience and try to find solutions. “There are many sailing waits,” she said. “How are we going to deal with that?”
BC Ferries said it carried 21 million passengers and 8.3 million vehicles in the fiscal year ending March 31.